by Jeni Miller
Imagine: A church where everyone, ages 2 to 102, is studying the same Bible verse. Or a school where the first-graders and eighth-graders have learned the same hymn by heart. And in the home? Siblings squabble over who gets to recite from Luther’s Small Catechism during evening family devotions.
It sounds impossible, but it’s very much the reality for the people of Peace Lutheran Church in Sussex, Wis. There, Peace’s pastor, the Rev. Peter Bender, pours hours upon hours into preparing some rigorous catechesis (that is, teaching) for those entrusted to his care. This catechesis seamlessly ties together the life of faith at church, at home and at the church’s classical school, Peace Lutheran Academy.
“We simply endeavor to create a culture of catechesis and prayer,” Bender said, “where we’re doing the things in catechesis that we want Christians to do for the rest of their lives — to receive God’s Word, confess their faith orally, sing hymnody, live out their vocations in service to neighbor and anchor their lives around Sunday services.”
Using a weekly resource that Bender puts together called “The Congregation at Prayer,” everyone from church members to students and families in the school engage in this life and culture of catechesis and prayer.
The two-page tool is like a revved-up devotion with an order of service; it includes relevant notes for the week, a Bible verse, daily psalms, a selection from the catechism with age-appropriate responses, daily readings and prayers, and a hymn.
“As a whole, our people are carried along quite vigorously using the catechism,” Bender explained. “These things are given over to the congregation as a gift, language is a gift, at the earliest ages possible.
“It’s not just for confirmation; it’s for the whole parish. ‘The Congregation at Prayer’ is used everywhere at Peace: It’s distributed to the church in our Sunday bulletin and on our website, it goes home with the day school kids each Friday, we use it in daily chapel, home-schoolers use it, public school families and retired couples use it in their homes, I hold it up and discuss it for the first 10 minutes of Bible class and encourage its use. It’s everywhere here.”
The resource is the central way in which this integration of church, home and school takes place, all to support the “family altar,” so that teaching the faith can primarily take place in the home.
“Of course, we in no way intend for everyone to do everything every day,” Bender added, “but to do what they can. It’s meant to be used at home, around the dinner table, even if it’s just the lesson and meditation, speaking the catechism and praying.”
Michael and Laurie Vogt and their three children, ages 3, 4 and 6, actually moved near the Sussex area from another part of Wisconsin just for their children to attend Peace Lutheran Academy.
“We moved here because of the school,” Laurie Vogt explained. “We previously felt like there was a disconnect between church and school. But now between church and Bible class, Sunday school and daily chapel, a weekly Didache class … there’s a lot of learning taking place as a family.”
Using “The Congregation at Prayer” as a guide to their evening devotions, the Vogt family feels that their family life has changed just by learning the catechism by heart.
“We’re all learning and practicing the same thing,” she said, “there’s no kid or adult version, it’s all the same. But I won’t say that it’s this quiet, peaceful after-dinner devotion! It’s actually kind of chaotic as the girls fight over who gets to read the Bible story, and when someone has learned parts of the catechism by heart and wants to be the one to recite it. What we’re doing at Peace, it connects church, home and school and makes you realize that the way the Bible is, that it’s perfect for all ages.”
No One Is ‘Qualified’
Preparing and supporting families to learn and engage in the Lutheran faith in the home is no small task. But it is worthwhile.
According to the Association of Religion Data Archives National Study of Youth and Religion, only 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid-to-late 20s.
However, the study found that 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults.
Another study found that the average youth spends 30 hours per week in front of the television or other device and another 30 hours in school, where a non-Christian worldview may be taught. These 60 combined hours are in sharp contrast to the 45 minutes per week that the average child — and adult — spends in the church classroom. (See gotquestions.org/falling-away.html.)
Add to that the eternal importance of learning the faith, and the stakes are even higher.
“In catechesis, you discuss the most important things you will discuss ever in your life — it’s life or death,” Bender said. “We spend hours on end doing all kinds of other things, but we need rigorous catechesis. The question is, how does the head of the family do that, teach the normal, ongoing life of prayer in the home that is not narrowly defined by our petitioning God but rather our devotional life of Scripture and hymns? None of us are qualified to do the work that God has called us to do, myself included, as pastor, father and husband. But the Word of God is what makes us able.”
Bender strives to support parents and models teaching for them in Bible class, vacation Bible school and in other contexts, and he also works to tie them in with other parents who have begun to do the same.
He feels that it’s the “pastor’s job to shepherd them and give them resources and show them how to teach, yes, but more how to receive God’s gifts, how to pray, how to confess, how to live where God has called. We learn to pray by doing, just as we learn to swim by doing.”
The Church That Prays Together …
But what are the effects — especially over time — of this kind of integrated study and learning of the faith?
“Long term, it serves to bind the congregation together in a community around the same diet of the Word of God, confessing the same thing, praying the same thing … it filters into our conversations,” Bender said.
“Now the life of our congregation is so alive and warm and gracious and generous, just by being well catechized. The catechism helps us learn how to listen to God’s Word, how to pray, how to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service, how to live in our vocations. In our school, the teachers are 110 percent behind it. There’s a wonderful harmony here as the Word of God in the catechism shapes the way people think and their understanding of His Word.”
That’s definitely been true for the Vogts.
“For our children … the focus is on learning it by heart — and now it’s really in their hearts,” Laurie Vogt said. “Talking about and applying our faith has become much more natural to all of us. Because we are learning the meanings of the chief parts of the catechism, those are often in our head as we go about our daily life.
When the kids misbehave and I’m talking to them about the specific sin, they are able to quickly tell me which commandment they broke. Or I’m able to tell them which commandment I broke when I need to apologize for something. Our children already have a much deeper understanding of their faith than I did when I was a young child.”
- See sample of “The Congregation at Prayer”: peacesussex.org (under “Weekly Downloads”)
- View photo gallery: lcms.org/photo/catechesis-peace-sussex
Deaconess Jeni Miller is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.